On Assignment: Evoking Expression

Tuesday was reasonably tense. I photographed a breakup, a drug intervention, a high school cafeteria fight and a few other iffy situations.

All told, an enjoyable afternoon. And it will probably change the way I approach my portraiture going forward.

MaryLee Adams is a local actress who has done work in theater and is more recently breaking into TV and movies. I photographed her for the Howard County Arts Council.

We had a room full of flashes set up for the shoot, but in the end the lighting could not have been simpler: it's just an e640 in a white beauty dish, overhead. There is another flash in a shoot-through white umbrella below, but it is not turned on. So the umbrella is just acting as a reflector.

The background is a projection screen in my basement office, which we let go dark with a little distance.

But the interesting thing for me in this shoot was not the lighting so much as the subject interaction. I learn so much from watching other photographers, especially when I can watch them work live. Specifically, I was thinking back to this 2010 post by John Keatley of a photo he did of a stunt man.

I loved the photo, but I loved the process behind it even more. Fast forward to 2013, and I got a chance to watch John work live in person, with the clock ticking in perhaps the highest of high-pressure environments. He was photographing Greg Heisler, with an egg timer running, in front of 350 other photographers.

It's on video, and you may have seen it when it appeared here earlier. At the 2:15 mark, John uncorks a seemingly effortless spiel:

"I like to imagine, what if things went a little differently…"

And from there, he just … goes. This was amazing to watch. Just like someone pulling a lens out of his bag, John was pulling a technique out of his pocket to get Greg lost in the moment and feeling free enough to do just about anything. And Greg, it should be known, is probably on the shy side as subjects go. Plus, he was being drawn out in front of 350 photographers, remember. Not exactly optimal.

It was fascinating. But at the same time, it didn't feel really "me." Or more accurately, it wasn't in my comfort zone. But a portrait session with an actress seemed like an ideal time to try it. And having done so I will absolutely do it again.

Is it a device? Yes. But it's a really effective device.

And even if it makes me uncomfortable, I want to keep doing it until it makes me less uncomfortable. Because I love the results.

I asked MaryLee not to think so much about her facial expressions and body attitudes, but just to remember and internally experience a variety of painful experiences. Like in this series, a breakup:

Or, to imagine herself in settings she had not experienced, such as showing up, seeing a roomful of your friends and realizing you had just been ambushed for a drug intervention:

Obviously, MaryLee is better equipped to access these emotions than a typical person. So for me, it was a wonderful way to test and experience the process.

Zooming in closer and removing the body attitude element (frankly, a big component) you are also left with more interesting tighter portraits:

Having dipped my toe in the water, I am much more willing to keep doing this, and to push my subjects who might not be so comfortable in the process as was MaryLee.

The range of facial expressions and body attitudes were remarkable — even if fleeting and subtle, and in many cases the micro-expressions I find particularly interesting. For that reason, flash power/recycling speed is a big factor. You don't want to be waiting four seconds for a beep and watching this word go by.

So move your light closer if you have to, to get a lower power setting and faster recycle speeds. Or bump the ISO — whatever. A little extra grain is not going to be a concern when balanced against more emotional content.

I am grateful to MaryLee for being such a willing and able first experience, and to John for letting me watch him do this inside the pressure cooker that is the GPP Shootout. I am definitely a little hooked.

For more on this technique, be sure to check out the second post in Sara Lando's excellent portraiture series from last year.

Next: A Scout and a Shoot, Pt. 1


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Blogger Patrick Snook said...


It reminds me of The Mona Lisa.

It also reminds me that I noticed recently in a book of Hollywood publicity stills from the 30s and 40s how infrequently the subjects showed their teeth.

Great post!


July 17, 2013 2:27 PM  
Blogger Joe Crocco said...

An often overlooked but essential element to creating successful portraits. The process of evoking expressive emotions from a subject is always challenging but you masterfully achieved it with this series of photos. Your choice of lighting captures her emotions perfectly. Wonderful work as always!

July 17, 2013 3:25 PM  
Blogger Tom Lim said...

Great post! I'm inspired and I want to try it myself. Photographing a drama student in the next few weeks, might be perfect!

1 question, approx. how much time was there between the shots?

July 17, 2013 3:26 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


When her expressions and body attitude converged, it was really fast. Almost like shooting sports, as far as the rhythm went. Other times, very slow as we were both exploring how to sit, light, frame, shoot, etc.

July 17, 2013 3:41 PM  
Blogger Khan said...

Nice photos....
Were can I get the full HD images... Above ones are very small.

July 17, 2013 4:22 PM  
Blogger Shineylewis said...

Thank you so much for this post and directing me to the video in the former post. I find extracting the subjects' personality and expression to be the most challenging part of portraiture. It's kind of refreshing to know I am not alone :)

Your inspiration and advice is appreciated!

July 17, 2013 4:52 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


If you click on the photos, they will open up to bigger versions.

July 17, 2013 4:58 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


You are very welcome.

July 17, 2013 4:58 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


No, thank you.

July 17, 2013 5:00 PM  
Blogger Dave R said...

Were these shot with the x100s?

July 17, 2013 7:36 PM  
Blogger Iden Pierce Ford said...

IMO you picked the correct shot........

July 17, 2013 11:03 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Dave R-

Nope, these were shot with a longer lens on a D3. I used my favorite portrait-length lens in my bag — a 25-yr-old MF Nikon 105/2.5.

July 18, 2013 12:26 AM  
Blogger belfox said...

Great post, as usual, thx for sharing.

In case of a professional model/actress, they are supposed to be able to call up emotions "at will", but not all of them will cover the full range.

As far as comfort zones go, actually asking a stranger (your non-professional model) to think back to not-so-happy moments like a break up is stretching the comfort zone for both model and photographer, but is also a unique opportunity to build up the confidence relationship. If it fails your shooting session may be over, but if it sticks you get access to a whole new range of expressions.

July 18, 2013 1:52 AM  
Blogger Ken Lawson said...

First post that got me......in a long time. That is the way I am shooting in the last year. I made no money, but had a lot of fun. Your post gave me the words to express.

Thank you. If any readers want to see some of crazy stuff, let me know. Thanks again
Ken in KY

July 18, 2013 12:03 PM  
Blogger Adam Lyon said...

Really engaging my subjects is something I constantly struggle with.
I like www.humansofnewyork.com. This guy is doing it daily with strangers on the streets of NYC no less!

July 18, 2013 12:40 PM  
OpenID lechphoto.com said...

Hey David,
I appreciate your creativity in approaching this. I think access to these emotions is critical. I would guess that most non-thesbians/actress types wouldn't be as responsive. Now here's the kicker for me: How did MaryLee respond to the finished product?
I feel like I can get some really interesting emotion in some portrait sessions, but the model/person won't love the photos and will even say -please don't show those to anyone- And no matter how much persuasion and kindness I use it won't happen. Maybe you've had better luck delivering this message in an appropriate fashion so that you can enjoy those "honest" expressions of life.
Here's one of my few successes: http://lechphoto.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/peter-cranky-bw-2013.jpg
OF course - to disprove my point - Peter wasn't an actor - he's a climber/engineer.

July 18, 2013 2:07 PM  
Blogger Steve Schuenke said...

What did MaryLee think of the shots?

July 18, 2013 2:52 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Steve and @lechfoto-

She did, actually. Which is not surprising because if you think about it, these photos were made by her more than they were made by me.

I set up some nice light, gave her a jumping off point and started occasionally pressed a black button. The rest was all her.

She's experiencing and projecting real, visceral emotions and I am choosing moments and freezing them. Then we both went through the frozen moments and chose ones we liked.

It's not a lottery so much as a winnowing down process.

I think we both found this to be a very interesting first experience. I would love to explore this further with her if she's up for it — literally storyboard a scene/environment/etc. and create a strong moment within it.

Now that I think about it, if I were casting a still model for a photo (as in, we need a very attractive, mid-20's woman for this photo) I'd cast her in a heartbeat.

She's got the looks to pull off modeling for an editorial or conceptual photo. And she obviously has the chops to project just about anything you'd want. You are not going to get that combo of capabilities just going down a list of models at an agency or Model Mayhem or whatever.

July 18, 2013 3:35 PM  
Blogger David Parsons said...

I've tried this a couple times. Such a nice change from the constant empty smiles that most model/headhsots are.

I certainly agree that it is very uncomfortable asking someone to think of sad and painful things for a picture.

July 18, 2013 10:07 PM  
Blogger MG said...

I LOVE this post, David!! As a performer myself, it's the part of the experience I have always WANTED photographers to give me when I have worked with them ... and many haven't.

Shooting musicians and actors is where photography has taken me, and building up the relationship between photographer and subject that you describe is what interests me most about it; it's a very different kind of portrait shooting, IMO!

Btw, doesn't necessarily have to be recollection of an unhappy experience either - just as easy to use other strong-emotion scenarios to get the expressions. I think, too, catching the subject slightly by surprise and shooting fast (as you did), gets the most natural looks.

July 18, 2013 11:39 PM  
Blogger MG said...

PS " Which is not surprising because if you think about it, these photos were made by her more than they were made by me."

EXACTLY what an actor's shot should be. One of my complaints about many non-headshot-specialists who take shots for actors is that the shot becomes more about THEIR vision (or their mua/stylist's) than what the actor projects.

Lechphoto wrote:
"I think access to these emotions is critical. I would guess that most non-thesbians/actress types wouldn't be as responsive."

Actually, that depends on how you direct them. It doesn't have to be as bald as this scenario - many "civilians" would find it very uncomfortable to go to that kind of emotional extreme - but you can certainly invoke emotions by talking, talking, talking and being ready to catch those moments of unguarded, honest expression. You may wind up overshooting a bit, but that's ok - electrons are cheap and it's easy enough to hit "delete" and get rid of the tossers. :) Very different process than "setting up" a portrait for 10 technically great shots, click click done. :)

July 18, 2013 11:44 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

I have a little project where I am going to make 1000 portraits in one year (and yes, I'm behind schedule thankyouverymuchforasking).

One day I was going to photograph an architect I know, and when I got there she said "Didn't you get my e-mail? Now is not a good time, we've had a bit of an argument in the office."

In my head I was yelling out "YES!" and convinced her to give me two minutes anyway and asked her to think of the situation in the office. Came out wonderful! And with a laugh, too :-)

The pic is here: http://www.fritzson.net - the diptych to the left.

July 19, 2013 4:45 AM  
Blogger Simon said...

Great post!

Any reasons you chose to go D3 when you have a digital MF at hand?

July 19, 2013 9:30 AM  
Blogger MG said...

One last response (sorry, David - this is a topic of huge importance to me both as performer and photographer!!)

" Such a nice change from the constant empty smiles that most model/headhsots are."

I can't speak for models (I don't typically work with them), but remember that working actors specifically need a "commercial" shot in their headshot collection for certain kinds of audition submissions - it's a marketing tool that they simply have to have.

For website/promo shots, and even some "theatrical" looks, you have more leeway for the kind of more original, personal and powerful shots that David produced in this series.

Ok, I'll slink back into lurkdom now. Thanks again so much for this post, David - I love that the subject of emotionally-honest headshots (which is so important IMO) will now get wider exposure among photographers given the huge readership of your blog!! :)

July 19, 2013 10:29 AM  
Blogger Shutterbug Steve said...

Wow. This is something i could talk about for an hour on. Thank you for your article and photos. I will say in all honesty, she looks bored and uninspired in her expressions... Now with that in mind, i will say that personally, technique is about 25% and the remaining %75 psychological. You are the conductor in charge of determining how the orchestra sounds. A good part of that is establishing a rapport with the model to help make them feel relaxed and comfortable in front of the camera. That includes helping guide or giving them suggestions on their posing. Talking and making jokes or telling stories helps with that. So is telling them to portray a specific emotion like, "imagine a puppy runs up to you- show me how you would look if that happened?" Or, "You got a flat tire on the way to an audition- how would you feel? Give me that emotion."- that kind of thing.

For me, telling jokes is good because it helps them laugh, which results in a pure laugh and smile- not forced- that you can then capture on film. From that, you've also loosened them up and their facial expressions will be much more looser and natural.

Music also helps a lot. I ask the model to name a few of their favorite bands- from that, i have a playlist with the style of music ready to go- indie, rock, electronic, etc.

If it doesn't feel like a stuffy shoot, the results won't look like it was stuffy shoot. For first time shoots with a new model, i like to meet them beforehand for coffee to discuss what we will be doing go over ideas. This helps because when they do show up, we've already formally met with me and it's much easier for them to pose. Showing them photos from magazines of expressions and poses of models also helps a great deal. A hugely great deal if they aren't experienced in being in front of the camera.

As for being the conductor, you have full control of how the model poses and how they express themselves- telling them to squint more or to give a slight smile or to pivot their head just so- that's extremely important. They don't have a mirror to look into- YOU are the mirror.

For me, setting power to allow for faster shots in case I "miss" an emotion is a non issue. I make every shot count and i set up every pose and look very carefully. I don't hope i catch a fleeting glance- i *make* that glance happen and have it held until i get the shot.

Being confident in talking will do more wonders for the looks you get than just rapid gunning and hoping for the best.

July 19, 2013 5:53 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

No offense, Shutterbug Steve, but I am gonna pass on the puppies.

July 19, 2013 6:14 PM  
Blogger John said...

WOW! "She looks bored and uninspired"... well, I'd say that's a matter of opinion. Personally, I think subtlety goes a long way. If you said, 'make a crazy clown face' then yeah, I'd say she missed it, but looking at those contact sheets, I was pretty impressed with her variability... and subtlety with her expressions. Sometimes, I think less is more.

As far as running and gunning and waiting for the right moments, I think a lot of folks employ that technique with great success. Everyone has their own techniques that work for them and just because its different, doesn't mean its any less effective.

Just my two cents though... and fwiw, I loved this post, but respect other opinions as well, even if I don't agree with them.

July 19, 2013 6:39 PM  
Blogger BobW said...

The breakup sequence is astonishingly moving. Extremely well done.

July 19, 2013 7:18 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Still not sure if serious or bring trolled by SS. If real, that may be the comment of the year.

July 20, 2013 1:20 AM  
Blogger BobW said...

Well, if it helps you reach a decision: I didn't care for the other sequences nearly as much. I thought her expressions and posture looked too contrived - not that there was anything terrible about them, and technique was spot on.

But the breakup sequence hits the nail on the head.

July 20, 2013 7:08 AM  
Blogger alan said...

Thanks for this post, David. I've tried this, to a lesser degree, in a handful of shoots that I've done over the last year, including a shoot yesterday. I actually think that either you or Joe McNally might have used it during Flashbus, but I'm not sure.

After reading this and some of the ideas for "thoughts" you put forward, I'm going to explore it again soon. I agree that, with someone you don't know, the shoot could end immediately but, if not, I think it could be opening the door to some truly captivating images.

As always, you're a great source of information and inspiration.

July 20, 2013 10:11 AM  
Blogger Michael C. Palma said...

I've photographed many an actor here in Los Angeles over the years, and that is exactly the type of technique I use to bring out the emotions and "looks" for each of them. It's like directing a movie, and it totally works! I'm glad that you too are using it as well :)

I just attended WPPI's On the Road here in L.A. this past week, and Peter Hurley uses a similar "schtick" as he calls it to get his clients to emote the expressions he's after. His technique is more of the "make them laugh and then capture it afterwards", but along the same lines. It's NEVER about "Okay, 'SMILE'", cause you will not get a true expression that way.

Thanks for the post David!


July 20, 2013 2:41 PM  
Blogger Tom Lim said...

I tried this with a high school drama student. We both had a lot of fun with it and got great results!

September 13, 2013 4:19 PM  

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